Is Google a public nuisance?

The scramble by companies to obtain personal information has implications for privacy law

Harshiv Thakerar
Harshiv Thakerar, solicitor, Mishcon de Reya

Since 2010, Google has been at the sharp end of criticism and lawsuits due to its self-professed quest to “map the world”.

Streetview, the program Google designed to provide panoramic street-level views of inhabited areas of the world, enabled it to inadvertently collect private data such as emails, images and phone numbers by accessing the public WiFi networks of unknowing residents.

As a result, Google was fined close to the maximum €145,000 (£122,000) by the German regulator, €100,000 in France and has pledged to pay $7m (£4.4m) in a lawsuit in the US. These amounts barely register for the vast multi-national company.

The breaches of privacy seem obvious – surely no one could contend that data transmitted on a household’s WiFi network was not intended to be private. Google, however, took a decision from North Carolina to the US Court of Appeals to argue that the breach of data privacy was exempted in the US Wiretap Act. It argued that data transmitted over a WiFi network constitutes “electronic communication” that is “readily accessible to the general public”.

On 10 September 2013, the court held that it disagreed and permitted a group of individuals to continue to sue Google.

So why did Google argue so vehemently that its collection of data in the US is legal? Surely an out-of-court settlement would have been more sensible, given that in 2010 it apologised for apparently unknowingly collecting the offending payload data?

The answer is simple: Google, like all other companies, wants our personal information.

The revelation by Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman, that, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it,” is telling.

Companies thrive on personal information. It helps them understand what we want and how we will try to get it and can, therefore, market appropriately to us. Google wants to find out as much as it can without breaking the law and it will use the courts to test what is legal.

So what does this mean for regular members of society, assuming that to use the internet means employing at least one of Google’s products?

The truth is, there is not much they can do. It is clear Google will fight all battles while continuing to test privacy law.

And it is not only Google that collects data – companies including online service providers, banks and shops also do it.

In an increasingly public world, it is impossible for users to stand up for or even know their rights. Companies will collect all the data they legally can in an effort to understand us and sell to us. This is not likely to change any time soon.

Harshiv Thakerar is a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya